On the Free, the new YA wilderness survival novel by Coert Voorhees, takes readers on an intense, sometimes frightening trek through the Colorado wilderness. Voorhees tells his story from three different perspectives—and with a level of detail that reveals his own experience outdoors.
We caught up with Coert to find out more about that last part.
Tell us about your earliest wilderness experiences.
I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in a family that valued the wilderness. My parents went on a two-week backpacking trip for their honeymoon. They are both from Denver, and I grew up in New Mexico, so I had exposure to the Sangre de Cristos, the Jemez, and the Sandias in New Mexico, and the Rockies in Colorado.
My parents have some great pictures of my sister and me out in the mountains when we were babies, so I think it’s safe to say that we’ve been camping our whole lives. When I was about eight years old, a friend of mine from school asked why I didn’t go to church. I didn’t know what to say, but I knew we went camping on the weekends, so I told my friend that my parents must think God lived in the mountains.
How about your most memorable?
When I was in my early twenties, I lived in Santiago, Chile. My parents and my sister, who is three years younger, came down to spend a couple of weeks at Christmas. It being the Southern Hemisphere, it was the middle of summer, so we went all the way down to Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile and did an eight-day loop of the park. I will always remember looking out over the glaciers, hearing them calve off, seeing the ice float toward us.
We ran into some weather there too. Driving rain and some of the strongest winds I’ve ever been in. At one point, we were hiking sideways across a fairly steep mountainside, and a gust of wind came up from below and was so strong that it basically lifted my mom up and pushed her into the side of the mountain. It was amazing.
What are some of the things you’ve learned (of the life-lesson variety) from time spent outdoors?
I’ve learned the importance of pacing myself. Sometimes you have to go eight or ten or however many miles in a day, and there’s really no way around that. It feels like I spend so much time in my daily life trying to come up with shortcuts or life hacks or whatever, but when you have to get ten miles to the next campsite, there are no life hacks for that. Literally the only way to do it is to put your head down and take step after step. Tiny, incremental progress. It’s a good lesson to learn.
If you’re going to spend time in the outdoors, you have to be prepared, as the Boy Scouts say, for things to go wrong. But something I like about backpacking is that there’s a very clear cost to being prepared. It’s like having insurance, but because you’re carrying everything you need, you feel the cost of the insurance with every step. That first aid kit weighs a couple of pounds, and you may never even use it! The extra pair of socks, or the camp shoes that you can also wear instead of your boots if you need to ford a tricky river, whatever it is. There’s a physical cost, be it in weight or space, to everything you carry with you. You have to ignore the temptation to say, well, it’s probably not going to be that cold, so I don’t need this base layer, or whatever.
Come back next week for a guest post from Coert on the real-life camping experience that partially inspired On the Free.